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Why operators should be driving innovation

model t illustration

In an issue devoted to technology, it’s only fitting we pay homage to Henry Ford, the lamplighter for restaurants’ rush into computerization a century later. The bitter, hard-hearted industrialist once was asked why he designed the Model T without a lick of research about consumers’ needs. “If I’d asked people what they’d wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses,’” he famously barked. 

Little did he know he was setting the mindset for the byting of restaurants long after his pushdown approach was abandoned in most fields. Today’s suppliers largely are deciding which innovations restaurants and their customers can boot up.

There’s no doubt those visionaries are remaking the industry, shifting functions from employees to gizmos, and often ones operated by the customer—with the guests’ eager buy-in. We recently ran a story online about an ATM-like device that dispenses pizzeria-caliber pies at a college 24/7. It’ll even discount the price to liquidation levels if the pies are in danger of losing their freshness.

An article posted around the same time looked at a pair of restaurants run by robots.  An online roundup of bar trends included a watering hole where a robot metes out shots and another writes out the drink specials on a blackboard.  

The infiltration is stunning. But just as worthy of pause is the persistence of Ford’s approach, where suppliers come to the market with a new capability rather than asking restaurateurs what they want or need. The “here it is” method is a norm for innovation; think of the iPod, or even the personal computer. But after a while, when users become sufficiently versed in the possibilities to air a wish list, the process usually shifts. The iPhone was born because consumers didn’t like lugging both an iPod and a mobile phone.

That switch has yet to arrive in the restaurant business. The proof: Keep children out of earshot if multiunit restaurateurs are asked if the POS systems in their operations can communicate with one another. In chains or groups where differing equipment of varying vintages is in place, amalgamation of the data can be a nightmare. There’s a clear need for easy integration. Yet it’s not there, as executives’ creative cursing attests.

Maybe there are some algorithmic reasons why that task is impossible, but it doesn’t strike the layman (or at least this one) as the moonshot it’s made out to be.  

Similarly, a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found pent-up demand among consumers for the ability to pick their tables while making a reservation, a capability for which they’d presumably be willing to pay extra. In recent months, a multitude of chains have adopted new reservations apps that enable customers to book a table and check their wait times without contacting the restaurant. But not one includes the capability to choose seats at a premium, a la what virtually every airline now does.

Where the industry could really use some high-tech help is in the area of food safety, presumably a tougher field to address with machines, computers and widgets. Yet few aspects of the business are more important, or more prone to the devastating effects of human error.

Tech suppliers have done a superb job of ushering the restaurant business into a new era. But all parties would benefit greatly if they at least gave a look for a faster horse. 

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